The UK Adds Wedgetail: The Future of Wedgetail as an Allied Capability

By Max Blenkin

When the UK announced in March 2019 that it would buy five Boeing E-7A AEW&C aircraft, the Australian government promptly issued a media statement citing this as a big win for Australian defence industry.

“The UK acquisition is expected to deliver 100 jobs to the Brisbane and Newcastle based staff of Boeing Defence Australia, taking advantage of their world-leading capabilities in systems and software engineering and deep experience in Wedgetail support, including ground based aircrew training,” then Defence Industry Minister, now Defence Minister Senator Linda Reynolds said.

“Further opportunities – including for the more than 200 Australian companies that have contributed to our own Wedgetail acquisition and sustainment – will be available for Australian industry in the supply chain.”

Eight months on, this has certainly created work in Australia, although perhaps not on the scale breathlessly forecast. More will certainly come, but the really alluring prospect of recapitalising of the USAF fleet of ageing Boeing 707 E-3C Sentry AWACS aircraft, remains at best, uncertain.

Further, Boeing simply can’t sell Wedgetails to just anyone. That’s because the aircraft is full of systems containing advanced technology which falls under the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), and this requires State Department approval for sale.

So how good is the UK acquisition of five E-7s going to be for Australian industry? “Great. We are supporting the UK wedgetail out of Australia today,” Scott Carpendale, the new Managing Director of Boeing Defence Australia told a recent media briefing.

“We have a leading role in supporting the establishment of the UK program, both supporting the development of the UK aircraft and aircraft systems, but also making sure the UK Ministry of Defence is able to establish a support infrastructure that gives them the same capability as Australia,” he added.

“We have a Project team. We have people in Williamtown who are building some of the ground segments to be shipped to the UK. We are doing software development in Australia that is part of an integrated software development team for the UK software baseline. There is a range of different areas.”

It’s not clear just where Turkey now sits with the US on E-7, considering its expulsion from the international F-35 program because of its insistence on acquiring a Russian S-400 missile defence system (see article on page XX). Boeing wasn’t about to comment. But Turkey already has possession of its four aircraft, so this may not be an issue.

Australia was lead customer for Wedgetail, developed specifically in response to the Australian AIR 5077 requirement for an advanced airborne early warning and control capability.

When the project encountered major technical problems and delays, Australia came close to pulling the plug. But it chose to persevere, as did Boeing – which took substantial losses on the project – on the expectation it would make good on future sales.

What emerged is very good indeed – the proven and widely used Boeing 737 airframe, coupled with the Northrop Grumman MESA (Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array) radar plus advanced mission systems.

“We still view the Australian Wedgetail program as a world class and world leading capability,” Carpendale said. “As the threat environment of the future continues to evolve, having a capability of that nature will be attractive to multiple customers. But we are working really closely with the US as to how we pursue those opportunities.”

Italy, Qatar and the UAE have all been reported to be interested in E-7, as is NATO which operates 16 E-3 aircraft to support its operations in Europe and internationally. But the UAE has acquired the Saab-developed Bombardier Global 6000-based Globaleye AEW&C, and Italy operates the IAI/Gulfstream G550 conformal AEW (CAEW).

But more recent reporting suggests NATO is instead leaning towards upgrading its E-3As instead of replacing them.

The UK’s aircraft will be based on the Australian aircraft, technically making them E-7A. It’s not known if the RAF will retain the E-7A designation and Wedgetail name, or more likely, a combination of the numerical designation and their own name as they have done with their E-3D ‘Sentry’, and RC-135V ‘Airseeker’.

The UK opted for a single-source procurement, going straight for the E-7 and bypassing a contest which would have involved Airbus and Saab which teamed up to offer Saab’s Erieye radar on an Airbus A330 airframe.

The deal was announced in March but appears to have been under serious consideration for some time, with then UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announcing last October that discussions were under way with Boeing. The UK Ministry of Defence had also talked to the RAAF, while RAF aircrew have trained in Australia aboard RAAF Wedgetails.

Former Defence Minister Christopher Pyne took some of the credit. At the third Australia-United Kingdom Defence Industry Dialogue (AUKDID) in London in July 2018, Mr Pyne pitched Wedgetail to his UK counterparts.

“During the Dialogue I took the opportunity to further promote Australia’s world-class Wedgetail capability to the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defence and the then Minister for Defence Procurement,” he said. “Deeper engagement between both countries’ defence industries, including through increased exports and industry partnerships, will further strengthen our bilateral relationship with the United Kingdom.”

UK aircraft will be manufactured in the US on the Boeing 737 production line, but will be modified to E-7 standard, with the addition of the MESA “top hat” radar and mission systems, by Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group at Cambridge in the UK. The first aircraft is scheduled for delivery around 2023.

The UK Wedgetail acquisition follows another sole-source acquisition of Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, also based on the 737 and also operated by Australia. The first of nine RAF P-8s was handed over recently, and will be delivered to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland next year.

The two sole-source deals with Boeing prompted criticism from some politicians that the UK was getting too close to the Americans, but the UK government’s Wedgetail announcement certainly highlighted the Australian connection.

“This deal strengthens our vital military partnership with Australia,” said Secretary Williamson. “We will operate the same state-of-the-art F-35 jets and world-class Type-26 warships, and this announcement will help us work even more closely together.”

Boeing Australia and the RAAF have formed what they call Team Wedgetail. The UK isn’t yet a member, but soon could be. Boeing Australia director of emerging markets Matt Buckle said the Australian and UK governments would collaborate in areas of E-7 where it made sense to collaborate.

“It is no surprise that that is what they are looking at, and how they can learn from Australia as they introduce the capability,” he said. “But the formality of those structures doesn’t exist today.”

One area of potential future E-7 cooperation with the UK is in an ongoing Australia-only Wedgetail upgrade program through project AIR 5077 Phase 5A. Under the Integrated Investment Plan (IIP), that phase is costed at $500-750 million.

This program reflects the reality that although Wedgetail is considered to be a state-of-the-art capability, some of its systems have been superseded by improved technology. The first Wedgetail flew in 2002 and, once the RAAF’s classic Hornets retire in 2022, the E-7As will be the RAAF’s second oldest platform after the C-130J Hercules.

Proposed avionics modifications will bring Wedgetails up to the same capability for navigation in congested airspace as current production civil 737s. This includes upgraded civil TCAS (Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance) and ADS-B Out (Automatic Dependant Surveillance Broadcast) systems.

Significantly, Wedgetail IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) will be upgraded from Mode 4 to Mode 5. This is a crucial cyber-security enhancement, with Australia following the US military. This will eventually be applied to all ADF aircraft.

Mode 5 IFF offers more robust security, particularly against spoofing which could potentially involve a potential unfriendly aircraft pretending to be a coalition aircraft and evading air defences. Although that appears a remote possibility, it was perceived as sufficiently serious for the US to mandate moving to more secure IFF for its combat aircraft.

Along with the IFF there will be improvements to encrypted datalinks, cryptographic upgrades for better security and also wideband satellite for the anticipated expansion in information flow, allowing Wedgetail to deal with high definition imagery. “I agree that some of this capability would certainly appeal to the UK,” Carpendale said.

There are no upgrade plans for the actual radar hardware, although IFF forms part of the MESA software. Neither does the airframe, which is regarded as supremely reliable, need any attention.

The USAF operates a fleet of 32 E-3 Sentry aircraft which have been steadily updated with improved mission systems. However, the Boeing 707 is long out of production – the last was made in 1994 – and airframes are becoming more costly and difficult to support.

As well, the USAF operates 17 E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (J-STARS) aircraft, also based on the Boeing 707 airframe. This is a surveillance aircraft designed to track vehicle movements at long distance.

With JSTARS slated to start retiring this year, the USAF has launched a new study program to look at replacement capabilities. This complex program is called Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) and, while it was initially looking at a new platform-based system, it now aims to replace JSTARS with a network of existing and new air-based and space-based sensors.

Buckle said the ABMS program was ill-defined at this stage. “They are going for an analysis of alternatives, and that will take some time before it matures,” he said. “We’d like to think that something that is along the lines of the Wedgetail could play a role in that program. But depending on where they go in their analysis of alternatives, that may or may not happen.”

Buckle said ABMS was now considering air battle management as a concept, not necessarily at replacing platform for platform. “It’s saying what do we need from an air battle management system going forward and what does that look like now,” he said.

Could that involve Wedgetail or a future variant of Wedgetail? Buckle said they would be guided by the statement of needs from the analysis of alternatives.

“We aren’t going to plough down the path of developing that capability for the US market if that’s not what they look to for their future needs,” he said. “Whether that involves space or other capabilities in terms of what their future air battle management concept is, will guide how we support that.”

This article appeared in the Nov-Dec 2019 issue of ADBR.

The featured photo shows a Wedgetail departing RAAF Darwin on an Exercise Pitch Black mission. Credit: Australian Department of Defence